Liberty tops New Mexico State to win Conference USA title

LYNCHBURG, Va. – Kaydon Salter threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and unbeaten No. 20 Liberty kept its hopes of a New Year’s Six bowl bid alive, beating New Mexico State 49-35 in the Conference USA championship game on Friday night.

Salter was 20 of 25 passing for 319 yards and rushed 12 times for 165 yards in a dominant performance for the Flames (13-0, 9-0), who can play on New Year’s Day as the top-ranked five-man group. Team If No. 17 Tulane falls to SMU in the American Athletic Conference title game on Saturday.

“If you watch us for 13 weeks, we are the best G5 team in the country,” Liberty coach Jimmy Chadwell said to cheers from the crowd that stormed the field. “Six wins over ball teams. Our average margin of victory is 17 points. We have dominated our opponents. We belong to the New Six.”

With the score tied at 35, Billy Lucas ran for a 2-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put Liberty ahead to stay. On New Mexico State’s next possession, Brandon Bishop stepped in front of Eli Stowers and made a one-handed interception of quarterback Blaise Berlowitz’s pass in the end zone.

Four plays later, Salter turned a broken play into a 35-yard touchdown run. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

“I feel like I went out today and just had fun,” Salter said. “That was the main goal today, even though it was a championship game and a big game for everyone. For us, this was just the next game, and we just wanted to go out and play for each other today.”

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Diego Pavia, who did not practice during the week because of a shoulder injury, threw three passes and ran to score for the Aggies (10-4, 7-1), whose eight-game winning streak came to an end. Pavia left the game during the third quarter and did not return.

“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever seen, you can quote me on that,” Aggies coach Jerry Keel said.

In came Berlowitz, who hadn’t thrown a pass all season. An 11-yard TD pass to Trent Hudson tied the score with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

The Flames, with the No. 1 rushing attack in the country, ran for 393 yards. Quinton Cooley had 11 carries for 71 yards and three touchdowns, Lucas finished with 86 yards on 14 carries and Aaron Bidgood had 72 yards on five rushes. Liberty finished with 712 yards of offense, had 35 first downs and didn’t turn the ball over while beating New Mexico State for the second time this season.

“This is our second time playing [Salter]”And he doesn’t make mistakes,” Keel said.

Despite getting a few defensive stops, New Mexico State kept it close until the final quarter. After Salter’s 20-yard pass to C.J. Daniels put the Liberty ahead 35-21 in the third quarter, Pavia threw a 75-yard scoring pass to Jonathan Brady on the next play from scrimmage.

Liberty’s next possession ended with a missed field goal. Berlowitz took advantage and hit Hudson to tie the game.

“Obviously we did the best we could, but there was never any doubt that we weren’t going to find a way to get it done,” Chadwell said.

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Hudson had seven catches for 112 yards and two scores. Pavia was 11 of 18 passing for 188 yards and had 45 yards rushing. Berlowitz was 10 of 19 for 134 yards.

Liberty will appear in the bowl for the fifth straight year since becoming a full member of the FBS in 2019. The Flames have gone 3-1 in bowl games.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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